The first sound Melanie White heard after a long silence was a telephone ring.
“I remember turning and saying ‘what was that,’ and they said that was a phone,” White said. “It was a little bit overwhelming, because there were a lot of different sounds, but I do remember being able to hear a telephone.”
White was not born deaf, but her world became increasingly silent in kindergarten. As her hearing progressively worsened, hearing aids and other traditional methods were no longer adequate. Then at 16, White found the solution: a cochlear implant.
A cochlear implant is a surgically implanted device that electronically transmits sound to the patient’s brain. The implant consists of several parts, including a microphone that is placed outside the ear that transmits signals to an electrode array in the cochlea, which in turn stimulates the eponymous cochlear nerve.
I was not born deaf, so that gives me a little bit of an edge. Those who were born deaf and get their implants immediately, they tend to do better than those who were born deaf and waited until later. —Melanie White
“It was not as painful as you would expect considering they go in through your skull to insert an electrode array,” White said.
White, an audiologist at the University of Memphis, was 27 when she decided to undergo the surgical procedure of receiving her implant, which is much older than the recommended time for maximum effectiveness.
“I was not born deaf, so that gives me a little bit of an edge,” White said. “Those who were born deaf and get their implants immediately, they tend to do better than those who were born deaf and waited until later.”
When to implant the device is a source of debate and reflects both physical and cultural issues. Some experts support implants for infants and young children who are born deaf to foster language development. But other members of the Deaf community say deaf children should wait until they are old enough to make a decision for themselves.
Photos by Patrick Lantrip
To some members of the Deaf community, who see themselves more as a cultural minority than as a medical subgroup, installing a cochlear implant before the individual is old enough to choose for himself or herself strikes at the core of what it means to be Deaf as opposed to deaf.
Authors Carol Padden and Tom Humphries, in Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture, define the lowercase use of “deaf” when referring to the audiological condition of not hearing, and the uppercase use of “Deaf” when referring to a particular group of deaf people who share a language.
Padden and Humphries also distinguished those born deaf from those who their hearing because of illness, trauma or age and noted that these people share the condition of not hearing, but do not have access to the knowledge, beliefs, and practices that make up the culture of Deaf people.
On the other hand, waiting until the individual is old enough to choose for themselves will almost certainly lead to speech and language development issues.
Lisa Mendel, a close friend of White and associate professor of audiology at the University of Memphis. said a year after birth is the youngest possible age for receiving an implant.
“If you met someone at Melanie’s age who was born deaf and used a cochlear implant for most of their life, they might be quite comfortable,” Mendel said. “Whereas if it was someone who was born deaf and didn’t get their implant until they were 10, 12, or 15, there would be significant problems in their speech production.”
While the debate is certainly not settled, in recent years it has greatly subsided, perhaps due to improving technology or the increasing ubiquity of cochlear implants.
—Staff Writer Taylor Means also contributed to this story.